Basic facts about shakuhachi

The shakuhachi (尺八) is the end-blown Japanese bamboo flute. Its' distinctive timbre or tone colour immediately reminds one of Japan and conjurs up images of samurai and geisha. The shakuhachi is often the bamboo flute sound used for fight scenes in kung-fu and action movies.

Shaku (尺) is the old Japanese measurement for foot and hachi(八) is the word for eight. The word shakuhachi therefore means 'one point eight feet', the length of the standard shakuhachi. It contains four holes on top and one for the thumb underneath. Shakuhachi makers use the root of the bamboo as a natural bell. The bamboo darkens as it matures. There are many lengths of shakuhachi apart from the standard 1.8 feet. They typically range from the tiny 1.3 to the long 3.6.

Shakuhachi history

The roots of the shakuhachi date back to ancient China. There are historical records of the shakuhachi being used in Buddhist ceremonies from the eight century. However, it was during the Edo Period (1603-1868) that the shakuhachi established itself. It was played by travelling Zen monks called komusō (虚無僧). These were former samurai or rōnin (浪人). There are some accounts that say that these monks were spys and used the shakuhachi as a weapon when they encountered former enemies. The komusō wore a straw basket called tengai (天蓋) on their heads to distance themselves from the world of reality. Learn more about shakuhachi history.

picture of komuso wearing a tengai Image of komusō playing shakuhachi.

Shakuhachi zen

Komusō used the shakuhachi to ‘blow Zen’, or suizen (吹禅) in Japanese. This is related to zazen (座禅) or 'sitting Zen'. The slow breathing required to play the honkyoku (本曲) or traditional repertoire of the shakuhachi is condusive to meditation. These pieces do not contain a steady beat or pulse like most western music. Listen to shakuhachi honkyoku.

Shakuhachi techniques

Shakuhachi players blow across the top of the instruments to get a sound. The breathing and blowing is similar to the western flute which is held horizontally. There is an insert at the top called the utaguchi (歌口) or song mouth. Shakuhachi players have to leave some holes partially open to get all the notes they need. This is accompanied by lowering and lifting the head in a technique called meri-kari (メリカリ). The head is also used to create vibrato or yuri (ユリ).

Japanese music

Japan has a wide variety of traditional music from folk tunes to more formal staged genres like kabuki and noh. There are also many different traditional instruments including taiko drums, the koto (琴) and the shamisen (三味線). The shakuhachi is used in the sankyoku (三曲) ensemble with the koto (zitter), shamisen (fretted lute) and voice.

Japanese music uses different scales to the western doh-re-mi. The miyako scale has five notes and is different going up and going down.

Japanese musical aesthetics

A distinguishing feature of Japanese music is the presence of what we usually call noise in other types of music. For the shakuhachi, this means using differnt types of wind effects and percusssive sounds made by the breath and fingers. Another interesting aspect is the importance of silence. This can create tension and a feeling of expectation. People will often hold their breath when there is a sudden silence. Sounds often burst out of the silence. Musicians also play so quietly that one is not sure if they are playing or not. It has been said that the silence is more important than the sound! Learn more about ma (間) or the Japanese concept of space and silence.

The modern shakuhachi

The shakuhachi is now popular for playing traditional Japanese music as well as other genres including jazz and film music. I have adapted Irish melodies for the shakuhachi. Learn more about Irish music and listen to the shakuhachi playing Irish melodies. Many modern and contemporary composers have been drawn to the unique sound of the shakuhachi.

Buying a shakuhachi

Learn about choosing a shakuhachi.

View shakuhachi for sale.